How Tomas Hertl's season-ending injury has changed Sharks' mindset, approach


How Tomas Hertl's season-ending injury has changed Sharks' mindset, approach

SAN JOSE -- Tomas Hertl's season-ending knee injury likely wiped out what little remained of the Sharks' slim playoff hopes, and a change in mindset was palpable ahead of their game against the visiting Tampa Bay Lightning at SAP Center on Saturday night.

"We know we got a lot of hockey left to play," San Jose interim coach Bob Boughner said following Saturday's optional morning skate. "We talked about that this morning about how we want to approach these next two months of hockey. Obviously, we've been kicked-in a little bit with the injuries and you have two choices how you want to handle that, and I think we're going to go with the option two where we're just going to come to the rink every day and we're going to work hard together. We talked about being more detailed than the opponent, structure and all those things. We can control our compete, and those are the things we're going to concentrate on."

Hertl will have surgery to repair a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee on Monday after an awkward collision with two Canucks players in the Sharks' 5-2 loss to Vancouver on Wednesday. It was actually a fairly similar kind of collision to the one that ultimately fractured Logan Couture's ankle in a loss to the St. Louis Blues on Jan. 7, which will keep the captain sidelined for several more weeks.

Couture and Hertl are not only San Jose's arguably two best forwards -- they're also the Sharks' top two centers, and their combined absence leaves a gaping hole in the middle of the ice. While there will be some positional adjustments to help fill the void, the injuries to Couture and Hertl also have created chances for lesser-established players to prove themselves.

"It's opportunities for young guys," Boughner explained. "[Barclay Goodrow] is going to go back to center. We feel that he's very responsible in his own end. He's a two-way guy, he's got detail to his game, so he's going to have to see a lot of the big lines, especially at home. But the other guys -- you've got [Joe Thornton] and [Antti] Suomela and [Joel] Kellman and even [Dylan] Gambrell can play some center, he'll take some draws on the right side -- those guys are getting an opportunity, and it's up to them to obviously show us what they can do and what they have, and I think it's up to the veterans as well to be very professional in how they handle the situation. Stay positive and let those guys lean on them a little bit, because they were all in that position at one point in time, too. So, it's got to be a group effort."

Clearly, San Jose's approach has changed since the start of the season, but that's bound to happen after a combination of terrible luck and poor performance. The playoffs are all but out of the picture now, but Boughner insists there is still plenty left to build towards.

"There's going to be some mistakes made and there's going to be some mismatches at times," Boughner said, "but we want to make sure that we're being patient and we're developing and we're improving and we're teaching. ... As much as I'm asking the veterans to do that, it's the same with the coaching staff. I think that we have to make sure that we realize what we have and what we're trying to do here in the next 30-plus games, and make sure that we're sticking together on that."

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This is not the position the Sharks expected to be in, to say the least. This season has turned out to be a transitional one from the start, and the injuries they've endured have only cemented that fact.

Sharks top prospect Ryan Merkley modeling his game after Erik Karlsson

Sharks top prospect Ryan Merkley modeling his game after Erik Karlsson

When it comes to the Sharks' top prospects, 19-year-old defenseman Ryan Merkley is in a tier unto himself.

San Jose selected Merkley with the No. 21 overall pick of the 2018 NHL Draft after he slipped due to character concerns. His talent, however, has never been in question and was too good to pass up.

Merkley impressed during his participation in the Sharks' rookie camp last September, and just completed what is likely to be his final season in junior hockey with the OHL's London Knights. With 15 goals and 76 points, he was the OHL's second-highest scoring defenseman, and his 61 assists ranked fourth-most in the entire league. London's season was brought to a premature conclusion due to the coronavirus pandemic, at which time the Knights sat in first place in their conference with a 45-15-2 record. San Jose's top prospect played a key role in their success.

"Ryan had a very good year," Sharks scouting director Doug Wilson Jr. said last week on a conference call (H/T The Athletic's Kevin Kurz). "In his career, every single season he scored more goals, he had more assists, he had more points and his plus-minus got better all four years in the OHL. I’m very excited about Ryan."

Always an offensive standout, Merkley is a great skater with advanced vision and tremendous passing ability. Though he has added more than 10 pounds in weight since the rookie camp, he's never going to be an imposing physical specimen, and his defense definitely is the area where he'll need to improve most. The Sharks, however, have someone specific in mind for him to learn from and model his game after.

"The biggest thing with [Merkley] was he’s never going to hit guys like Brent Burns or Radim Simek, he’s going to play defense more like Erik Karlsson," Wilson Jr. added. "If we can get him to use his stick to angle guys off in the neutral zone and then get the puck going north faster, that’s how he’s going to play defense. I think that’s what you saw this year with him."

Karlsson has long been regarded as one of the top defensemen in the NHL, and deservedly so. He signed an eight-year contract extension prior to the currently-paused season, so he should be around for quite a while. Merkley has a long way to go to get on Karlsson's level, but he already has been studying the former Norris Trophy winner for some time now.

"Yeah. He’s not the biggest of bodies, but he’s a great skater and closes up the gap well, makes that great first pass," Merkley told Kurz about Karlsson. "I do think there are some similarities and things I can look up to. Obviously, he’s one of the best in the world. So [Wilson Jr.] and [the Sharks staff] were big on me watching him and watching the way he defends. It’s just (about) growing, getting better and getting more reps."

In addition to Karlsson, Merkley has another Sharks' defenseman to learn from in Mario Ferraro. They roomed together during the rookie camp, and Merkley made sure to follow Ferraro's extremely successful rookie season.

"For sure, it was awesome for him. I was excited for Mario," Merkley said. "He got a good chunk of NHL games. He’s a workhorse. I’ve never seen anybody (take care of) the body and (do) what he does off the ice. It’s incredible. He never stops moving out there, his work ethic is incredible. He’ll play a long time in the league because there’s not many that take care of their body like that or work as hard as he does. It’s awesome, something I can look up to and follow."

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Ferraro projects as a future top-pair defenseman and it wouldn't be surprising if he eventually was involved in the captaincy. The Sharks are hoping Merkley turns out just as well.

And, if they end up with another Karlsson ... that's the dream.

NHLPA OKs further talks with NHL on 24-team return; Sharks' season could end


NHLPA OKs further talks with NHL on 24-team return; Sharks' season could end

The NHL and the players' association took a big step toward returning to the ice, but it could mean the Sharks' 2019-20 season is over.

The NHLPA announced Friday night that it has "authorized further negotiations with the NHL" on a 24-team return to play format.

As the players' association noted, the sides still have more details to work out before the league officially can resume the season that was suspended in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

While no specifics were provided on the teams that would be allowed to resume playing, the Sharks are not one of the 24 best teams in the NHL standings.

The Sharks possessed the worst record in the Western Conference (29-36-5; 63 points) and the third-worst record in the NHL when the season was suspended.

[RELATED: What went wrong for Sharks]

If this is how the Sharks' season concludes, it will put an end to a campaign in which the team entered with high expectations.

Last season, the Sharks made it to the Western Conference finals before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.

The Sharks again were expected to contend for the Stanley Cup this season, but the departure of several veterans, combined with poor play early in the campaign, led to the firing of coach Peter DeBoer after 33 games. Bob Boughner took over as interim coach, but San Jose skated to just a 14-20-3 record under him.